The Land of Fire and Ice
Essay by Alyssa Barron. Photography by Michael Freeman.
Traveling to the land of fire and ice, I’m hoping for something literal. I fancy traversing active volcanoes and peering into molten lava tubes. What I’m to find, however is evidence of fire. Petrified lava long since erupted, though due every two thousand years (a comforting two hundred years from now). The ice is apparent in the stark, January winter and the fire is evidenced in the black fields and beaches. Even from overhead, as our plane makes its decent, the land looks harsh and wild: a mixture of black and green coats the landscape before succumbing to mint blue waters.
I’ve heard the term lava field but have no concept of what that could mean. Closer inspection reveals the truth of it: black chunks of solid fire, covered in velvety moss that emeralds would envy. The terrain is a contradiction of jagged and smooth; the untouched land uninhabitable to even the hardiest of creatures.
Looking out over the ancient eruption, I wonder how the arctic fox fancies it: a playground of fire, emeralds, and ice.
Iceland is a harsh and beautiful place. Only the toughest could have originally settled here. The ancestors of Vikings claim these lands and each time I pass by the images of burley bearded men, I catch myself smiling inwardly. But it’s the women, I soon learn who are the most impressive.
Inolden days, they were known to grow beards of their own and were regarded as equals to the men, trained both to hunt and fight. In a stark land like this, they would need such skills.
I travel with a book of Nordic myths, reveling in the tales of Loki and Thor as I walk in the land of their creation. Paganism is not long stifled here and the Norse mythology weaves its magic just as acutely as Native American lore in the United States.
Reykjavik is often called the Cloud Magnet and she doesn’t disappoint, depending on how you look at it. I find out all too soon that snow-proof and water-proof are NOT synonymous, and I may as well have jumped fully clad into a lake instead of walk the city streets. Even so, the soggy capitol still sparkles with delight. As I stand soppy, numb-toed and shivering there’s a smile on my face and I’m erupting in little hiccups of freezing laughter. When swans come in for a landing on a frozen lake, they’re the opposite of graceful.
Honking, slipping, and stumbling over the ice: kings reduced to jesters in the winter freeze.
On the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, the clouds bring snow instead of rain and it settles thickly over the lava, until uneven fields of cotton blanket the view.
On the beaches, sand lays starkly black against the snowy edge waving along the shore.
Conch shells bright as a bouquet of roses and daffodils crowd the sands just beyond the lava tide pools. Everything here is made of lava. Over a hundred volcanoes populate the island. How many eruptions over the millennia?
We drive over a hilltop and the view toward Hellnar reveals two giants in the distance. It’s enough to quicken the blood, these two high-reaching boulders standing alone along the distant shore. They’re called the Londrangar cliffs and legend holds that they are two trolls turned to stone in the light of the sun. Another belief is that one basalt cliff is the church of the Hidden People and the other is their library. Trolls turned to stone, church or library, the sight is captivating, and my feet carry me over the snowy lava fields to reach them. I stand at their base, watching terns flying wildly on their high cliffs above. Something hidden has a home here.
Beneath my downy jacket and thermal top, the skin on my arms is prickling. I’m nearly alone. There’s a cliff in the distance where the sparse few travelers peer out over the scene from the heights. The land below is only mine.
Borrowed land in borrowed time, I am much aware. I breathe in the salty air, my footsteps crunch over the white veil, I pause and listen to the winds.
My footfalls find the spots where grass extends to the sky. I avoid the patches of pure white, not knowing just how deep they go. There are countless hidden crags among the lava rocks and I’m not a little aware that I take my life in my hands with every step forward. Am I tempting fate? We all die at some time.
I step on a patch that cracks beneath my foot and hurry past. Frozen water buckling beneath my weight? No, I see lines in the snow revealing I’d stepped on wood. A door to a bunker, a larder, something hidden beneath the snow. There are hidden things here.
I cannot see beyond this holiday. Perhaps this is where I’ll die. The thought doesn’t astound or frighten me. Again that inward smile, to realize that my mother’s death gave that to me: a coming to terms with mortality.
Without fear or anxiety, I hike up the curving hilltop to the highest point and look back over the two lone figures reigning over the shore.
Death is nothing to fear. The inevitable is just that, and I’m smiling outwardly now at the beauty all around.
I don waterproof clothes and am given a helmet and torch to go inside the Vatnshellir lava cave: down the spiraling staircase, to what may as well have been the center of the earth.
Stalagmites and stalactites cling to the cave walls, not formed over millennia of water and calcium deposits, but created in mere hours of molten lava oozing forth soon after an eruption. Our guide takes to a kind of stage and invites any singers to come up and sing. I’m a singer, I raise my hand and am welcomed up.
Lava caves do not echo as other caves do. They absorb the sound into their porous flesh and keep it for all time.
I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.
The melody doesn’t reverberate at all, but lands, hallow in the pitch hall amidst the underground rain.
We come to a room beneath the bioluminescent bacteria which shines like starlight upon every surface illuminated in our beams. We turn off all torches, quiet all chatter and listen to the droplets of rain in the pure dark. Not a hand can be seen in front of my face, not a trace of anything in the encompassing black. No life in these caves save the bacteria coating the walls. No sounds other than rain dripping from a lava sky.
Twice before, I’d experienced cave darkness. The first time I was a child, and I questioned if I would ever see light again. The second time I was a teenager and I laughed at the wonder of sensory deprivation. This time, in my thirties I smile at the serenity of nothingness before my eyes and trust entirely that the perception of light will find its way to my brain once again.
At night, after music and storytelling, we drive to a waterfall. Thick and padded with thermal and downy layers, we take to the steep and icy path, over the crown of the falls and down the slippery route to its secluded shoulder. Above our heads, the aurora borealis is just waking up. We gaze this way and that as hazy green patterns take to the skies. As the shapes sharpen, we lie in the snow listening to the music of the waterfall rising in the night. I wonder after a while if I’m getting wet or merely cold and sit up to investigate. Just cold. We sip hot tea and share chocolate until the chill drives us to go back. Up the icy path, arm in arm with the buddy system to keep us from falling. We reach the top of the waterfall bridge and can’t go any further.
Arching across the bridge in a vibrant green rainbow, the northern lights stop us in our tracks. We whoop and holler and jump up and down and, as if heartened by our cheers, the aurora brightens and sharpens and swirls around the starry sky. We again sprawl upon the snow as the solar rays scribble their hidden messages above. I begin to sing, a wordless folk song of mine from long ago, and a figure-eight of green stamps itself upon the black and from its zenith, a vibrant waterfall pours through its outline in a wave of what could only be pure joy. The hidden language in the skies. Seemingly responding to our jumping, to our singing, to our bliss.
As I dreamed in bed that night, I understood what the language said. One of the Hidden People came out from the watery cliffs, glowing a hushed shade of green as if echoing the call of the northern lights. He taught me how to read them. Taught me what they meant; how the lights are the connection between this realm and theirs, between all the realms combined. A language written in shifting light. They are the energetic structure of life itself. They are the external evidence of what is transpiring within our bodies in any and every given moment.
As I meditated the next morning, I felt the power of the northern lights upon my visual memory centers: seeing them strengthened my own awareness and connection of my internal lights.
We are of the same stuff that makes up the stars. We are the energetic free-flowing sequence of the aurora borealis in human form. I felt it as sure as I’d seen it.
Within my own body, my own lights swirl and cascade in and through me, hidden messages in the vastness of my own sky. Because I am sky. I am earth. I am oceans and heavens and fire and stars. I am flora and fauna, color and darkness and light. I make up all things, as they make me.
Evidenced in the shimmering lights in the clear sky, in the frozen fire made black and porous to hold sound and light, in the snowy beaches and daffodil-colored snail shells, in the velvety moss and the boiling sulfur pools where rain drops onto the surface like music.
There is no line drawn between these things and me. No separation between I and them. We are each other. Energy in fluid, shapeshifting form, either fire, ice, earth, or air: we make up the elements and hold them together in our ether.
Alyssa Barron is a musician, writer, yoga instructor, an avid traveler and wine enthusiast. You can find her work in the Elephant Journal on Unified Field Theory and quantum physics, as well as her poetry in the 2016 - 2018 issues of the Artemis Journal. She is currently completing the final draft of her fantasy novella, In the Hands of Gods and editing book one in her fantasy trilogy, The New Witch.
Michael Freeman studies the active phenology of the Douglas-fir bark beetle in the context of recent increasing mortality of Douglas-fir in the Puget Sound region. A graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle, he enjoys exploring the mountains outside the city and arguing about conservation and environmental politics.